New to Youth Ministry: Discipleship First as a Disciple

Oh, the ways we mystify and complicate discipleship. I am absolutely guilty of this in my youth ministry career, and I pray this article will be a beginning of repentance, although I have a long way to go. In desiring to know “the right way” to do discipleship, I fear I’ve often talked about it or taught on it with far too much theory and far too many practical suggestions or frameworks. But a conversation with a woman named Julie Moser last year brought refreshing and grounding clarity for me.

Julie asks potential youth volunteers (of all ages!), “Do you love Jesus? Do you love people? If you can answer ‘yes’ to both of these questions, you can ask people to ‘follow my example as I follow Christ.’” Referring to Paul’s exhortation in I Corinthians 11:1, she encourages these folks by letting them know they are not required to have seminary degrees, extensive counseling training, or a command of Greek and Hebrew in order to sit with a student, get to know them, open the Bible, and pray together. That’s it. Relationship, Bible, prayer.

As youth leaders, we are first and foremost disciples ourselves. We are, as Henri Nouwen calls us, “not the healers, we are not the reconcilers, we are not the givers of life. We are sinful, broken, vulnerable people who need as much care as anyone we care for.” This means that we are beggars sharing bread, not people who have all the answers, or who have had amazing spiritual experiences. And we must continue to receive from the Bread of life, Himself, as we minister to others.

So, where have you been fed the Bread of Christ? And where do you feast on Jesus? Which part of the gospel resonates deeply with your heart?

For me, I have been fed most often by hearing stories of God’s faithfulness, and by spending time with fellow believers wrestling with difficult Scriptural, theological, and existential questions (usually over something tasty). And I feast on Jesus, enjoying Him and how He’s made me to connect with Him, when I play or watch soccer, and when I get out into creation. And in terms of which part of the gospel (Jesus’ incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension) resonates with me the most, that shifts from season to season. Most recently, the incarnation has really moved me, as others’ inclusion and welcome of me, and their expressed desire to know me have been where I’ve been experiencing the grace of the Lord.

The answers to the above questions will be different for everyone, as we all engage with Jesus differently, and we all reflect the Trinity uniquely. The questions are important to consider, as they will reveal to you how you might best disciple those around you; the answers to these questions will indicate what it means to you to know, follow, and share in Jesus.

Jonathan Dodson writes, “Gospel-centered discipleship is not about how we perform, but who we are – imperfect people clinging to a perfect Christ, being perfected by the Spirit.”

It can be so tempting to turn discipleship into another Christian “to do.” We must recognize when this is happening however, and repent – we have made discipleship into something it is not when we fall into that. James K.A. Smith writes in You Are What You Love that “Discipleship is more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing.” We will share and lead best when we do it out of where we hunger and thirst to know and see Jesus in our own lives (e.g. the questions we continue to wrestle with). And we will share and lead best out of where we’ve been fed and watered (e.g. where we’ve seen, known, and experienced Jesus in our lives).

The most-frequently used Greek word for “disciple” in the new testament is μαθητής, or mathétés, meaning “learner,” or” pupil.” Most often we think of disciples as followers, but the ancient near east use of the word held a connotation of more extensive attachment than “follower” holds for us. In an apprenticeship, a disciple would connect with the one training them in order to grow in practical and theoretical knowledge through instruction and experience. And often, they’d leave their home and move in with their instructor, who might provide food and housing for them as well. They would be formed by this relationship with their master. This means that they’d not only gain skills and knowledge, but their worldview and ways of relating would be impacted also.

We want to remember, as we disciple our students and leaders, that our faith is about so much more than the transfer of information. Do we want those we’re leading to have solid scriptural and theological foundations? Absolutely. But do we also want them to enjoy a deep, mysterious, intimate, continually-growing relationship with Jesus and His body? Yes. And do we want them to offer up who they are – gifts, weaknesses, needs, personalities, and interests – for the sake of the kingdom? Unquestionably. We want heads, hearts, and hands to be formed as we disciple and continue to be discipled.

So, in light of the fact that we are dynamic beings who are becoming more of who God has made us to be through Jesus, we might want to consider various means by which we get to know, share in, and celebrate Jesus together. For me (and this is not a prescription), this has meant more invitations into my home, recently, and having food to share more often, in discipleship groups. It has meant more creativity and flexibility (and risking failure!) in a high school girls’ small group I co-lead, where we’ve tried some different ways of worshipping and praying, such as listening to worship songs mindfully, having a foot washing, and inviting different types of prayers, in addition to the weekly Bible study.

It is important to know how you’ve been discipled and shaped – by culture, your family, your church, and past mentor figures, so that you can discern what needs to stay or go. Moving forward, consider how the Lord is inviting you to disciple out of who He’s made you to be. There are plenty of beautiful examples of what following Jesus looks like in Scripture, so let us ever return to those stories. Let us learn to say, “I don’t know.” And let us always continue to get to know Jesus ourselves.

I’ll bring my moldy bread hunks. You bring your tiny bait fish. He’ll make a feast.

Liz Edrington serves as the Fellowship Groups and Young Adults Director at North Shore Fellowship in Chattanooga, TN. She received her M.A. in Counseling from Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL, and she has worked with students in one form or another since 2002. She is an emeritus member of the Rooted steering committee, and she's the author of a 31-day devotional for teenagers called Anxiety: Finding the Better Story (P&R Publishing, 2023). Pickled things delight her, as does her snuggle beast, Bella the Dog.

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